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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ by Betty Friedan ****

The 41st book in the Penguin Moderns series is Betty Friedan’s The Problem That Has No Name.  The selected work in this volume was first published in her seminal The Feminine Mystique (1963), in which Friedan ‘gave voice to countless American housewives… and set the women’s movement in motion’.  In The Problem That Has No Name, one finds the titular essay, as well as a piece entitled ‘The Passionate Journey’.

I have read criticism about Friedan’s work before, and other tracts which mention her, but this was my first taste of her original work.  Friedan notices a marked shift between the 1920s and 1950s in the priorities of women in the United States: ‘A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband.  By the mid fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bat.’  This denotes a crisis in society; few women decided to pursue careers for their own fulfilment, working instead to support their families.9780241339268

Friedan’s work is all-encompassing, and she is very understanding of Everywoman.  The first essay begins in the following way: ‘The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.  It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.  Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.  As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffered Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: “Is this all?”‘  As the title of this work suggests, Friedan suggests reasons as to why a name had never before seen given to ‘this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women…’.  The ‘problem that has no name’ consisted of the many women believing that any individuality they once had was swallowed up as soon as they became wives and mothers.

Useful statistics have been woven in throughout The Problem That Has No Name, in order to reinforce or better illustrate Friedan’s points.  She also makes use of the many interviews which she has conducted with females all across America, discussing various problems which they had with their husbands or children.  It is in these instances that her profession of magazine journalism really shows.  She notes the point at which she began to notice signs of something buried within widespread society, and common for so many different women: ‘But after a while I began to recognize the telltale signs of this other problem.  I saw the same signs in suburban ranch houses and split-levels on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester County; in colonial houses in a small Massachusetts town; on patios in Memphis; in suburban and city apartments; in living rooms in the Midwest.’  In the 1960s, Friedan notes that news outlets began to report on ‘the actual unhappiness of the American housewife.’  Although she does not talk about her own life in detail, Friedan also touches upon her own experiences of bringing up her children during this period.

The dissatisfaction of women is a major theme in the second essay too, but from an historical perspective which focuses on the path to women’s rights.  ‘The Passionate Journey’ begins: ‘It was the need for a new identity that started women, a century ago, on that passionate journey… away from home.’  Of this journey, which women felt compelled to make in order to keep a grasp on their personal individuality, and to try and escape from societal confines, Friedan writes: ‘Theirs was an act of rebellion, a violent denial of the identity of women as it was then defined.  It was the need for a new identity that led these passionate feminists to forge new trails for women.  Some of these trails were unexpectedly rough, some were dead ends, and some may have been false, but the need for women to find new trails was real.’  This essay is a real celebration of what women have achieved.

Friedan’s writing style is highly accessible, and she takes a clear point of view throughout.  Her prose is highly engaging and quite easygoing, despite the wealth of information which she denotes.  She is incredibly perceptive of womankind, viewing them as individuals rather than as a singular collective, and recognising that many women who were suffering silently during the period which she examines did so for myriad reasons.  The Problem That Has No Name is an empowering tome, and I will certainly be reading the rest of The Feminine Mystique at some point.  Despite the fact that it was published over five decades ago, Friedan’s work is still highly relevant in the twenty-first century.

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Penguin Moderns: Georges Simenon and William Carlos Williams

Letter to My Mother by Georges Simenon (#39) ****9780241339664

I love reading correspondence, and was looking forward to the extended Letter to My Mother, written by Georges Simenon, most famous for his Maigret series of detective novels.  This is a ‘stark, confessional letter to his dead mother [which] explores the complexity of parent-child relationships and the bitterness of things unsaid.’  First published in 1974, and translated from its original French by Ralph Manhem, Letter to My Mother is filled with sadness from its beginning.  Simenon writes, very early on, ‘As you are well aware, we never loved each other in your lifetime  Both of us pretended.’

Simenon grew up in the Belgian city of Liege, and wished to revisit his pained childhood here.  A period of three and a half years elapsed between the death of Simenon’s mother and the writing of this letter, and he is almost seventy years old when he puts pen to paper.  He tells her about this, stating: ‘perhaps it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand you.  Throughout my childhood and adolescence I lived under one roof with you, I lived with you, but when I left for Paris at the age of nineteen, you were still a stranger to me.’  Even when he was young, Simenon was aware of his mother’s problems: ‘You endured life.  You didn’t live it.’  He then muses, after speaking of the favour his mother showed his younger brother: ‘It seems to me now that perhaps you needed a villain in the family, and that villain was me.’

The relationship between Simenon and his mother was fraught and complicated.  This tender and honest letter details their troubled interactions, and his mother’s lack of warmth toward him.  He speaks throughout about the unknown events of his mother’s own childhood, which may have caused her to behave in the disconcerting way which she often did.  Writing such a letter is a brave act; it seems a shame that his mother was never able to see it.

 

Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams (#40) ****

9780241339824The fortieth Penguin Modern publication is a collection of poetry by William Carlos Williams, entitled Death the Barber.  The poems here are ‘filled with bright, unforgettable images… [which] revolutionised American verse, and made him one of the greatest twentieth-century poets.’  I do not recall having read any of Williams’ work prior to this, and was expecting something akin to e.e. cummings.  Whilst I was able to draw some similarities between the work of both poets, their work is certainly distinctive and quite vastly different from one another’s.

The poems in Death the Barber are taken from various collections published between 1917 and 1962.  Whilst I recognised ‘This Is Just to Say’, the rest of the poems here were new to me, and have certainly sparked an interest within me to read more of Williams’ work.  There is so much of interest here, and the varied themes and imagery made it really enjoyable.  Whilst some of the poems seem simplistic at first, there is a lot of depth to them.  I shall end this review with two of my favourite extracts from this brief collection.

From ‘Pastoral’:
The little sparrows
hop vigorously
about the pavement
quarrelling
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.’

From ‘To Waken an Old Lady’:
Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.

 

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Dark Days’ by James Baldwin ****

The thirty-eighth book in the Penguin Modern series is Dark Days by James Baldwin, a selection of three searing and important essays – ‘Dark Days’ (1980), ‘The Price of the Ticket’ (1985), and ‘The White Man’s Guilt’ (1965).  All of them draw upon Baldwin’s own experiences of prejudice, and a life growing up in poverty.  I really enjoyed Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, and have been hoping to read more of his work ever since, so I was very much looking forward to this title.

9780241337547Whilst Baldwin’s prose style is beautiful and intelligent, the content of these essays is sometimes quite difficult to read.  The titular essays begins with Baldwin’s beliefs about racial ideas which prevailed during the Great Depression: ‘To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history.  To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.  Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.’  He goes on in this essay to discuss his education, which he received in Harlem during the Great Depression: ‘My education began, as does everyone’s, with the people who towered over me, who were responsible for me, who were forming me.  They were the people who loved me, in their fashion – whom I loved, in mine.  These were people whom I had no choice but to imitate and, in time, to outwit.  One realizes later that there is no one to outwit but oneself.’

Despite the brevity of these essays, Baldwin discusses an awful lot of topics, many of which are interconnected, in depth.  He talks about race, the economy, migration, family, community, war, identity, politics, education, sexuality, and poverty, to name but a handful.  He writes with piercing insight, and so much talent.

Baldwin comments throughout on American society and culture.  In ‘The White Man’s Guilt’, he writes, for instance: ‘This is the place in which, it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves.  Impaled.  They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.  This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in these stammering, terrified dialogues which white Americans sometime entertain with that black conscience, the black man in America.’

Dark Days feels incredibly modern, both with regard to the problems which it speaks about, and the harshly divided world which it presents.  The essays here are important and insightful, and should be read by everyone.  If we all took Baldwin’s ideas and sentiments to heart, the world would be a much nicer place in which to live.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Duke in His Domain’ by Truman Capote ****

The thirty-fifth book in the Penguins Modern series is Truman Capote’s The Duke in His Domain, a piece of journalism which covers an extended meeting with Marlon Brando in Japan.  This ‘peerless piece of journalism’ presents, promises its blurb, a ‘mesmerising profile of an insecure, vulnerable young Marlon Brando, brooding in a Kyoto hotel during a break from filming’. 9780241339145 The interview was conducted in 1956, when Brando was filming ‘Sayonara’, and the extended article was published in The New Yorker the following year.

Amongst Capote’s many gifts is the ease with which he wonderfully depicts settings, such as one of the more traditionally Japanese decorated rooms of a Westernised hotel which Brando is staying in: ‘His quarters consisted of two rooms, a bath and a glassed-in sun porch.  Without the overlying and underlying clutter of Brando’s personal belongings, the rooms would have been textbook illustrations of the Japanese penchant for ostentatious barrenness…  In these rooms, the divergent concepts of Japanese and Western decoration – the one seeking to impress by a lack of display, an absence of possession-exhibiting, the other intent on precisely the reverse – could both be observed, for Brando seemed unwilling to make use of the apartment’s storage space, concealed behind sliding paper doors.’  The way in which Capote writes about Kyoto too, is stunning: ‘Below the windows, the hotel garden, with its ultra-simple and soigné arrangements of rock and tree, floated in the mists that crawl off Kyoto’s waterways – for it is a watery city, crisscrossed with shallow rivers and cascading canals, dotted with pools as still as coiled snakes and mirthful little waterfalls that sound like Japanese girls fighting.’

Capote also had a marvellous ability to capture so much in just a single sentence, as he does here: ‘My guide tapped at Brando’s door, shrieked “Marron!” and fled away along the corridor, her kimono sleeves fluttering like the wings of a parakeet.’  His descriptions of his guide, as well as the woman who looks after Brando, are rather enchanting; he describes them variously as ‘doll-delicate’, with ‘tiny, pigeon-toed skating steps’ in their kimonos, and having a ‘plump peony-and-pansy kimonoed figure.’

Brando’s elusive qualities are discussed in swathes in The Duke in His Domain.  Whilst defined as a ‘slouchingly dignified, amiable-seeming young man who was always ready to cooperate with, and even encourage, his co-workers’, he would rarely accept invitations to spend time with anyone, ‘preferring, during the tedious lulls between scenes, to sit alone reading philosophy or scribbling in a schoolboy notebook.’  Capote captures Brando and his curiosities in such a playful, precise manner: ‘Resuming his position on the floor, he lolled his head against a pillow, dropped his eyelids, then shut them.  It was as though he’d dozed off into a disturbing dream; his eyelids twitched, and when he spoke, his voice – an unemotional voice, in a way cultivated and genteel, yet surprisingly adolescent, a voice with a probing, asking, boyish quality – seemed to come from sleepy distance.’  He also gives a real insight into Brando’s thought processes, and the manner in which he conducts himself: ‘The voice went on, as though speaking to hear itself, an effect Brando’s speech often has, for like many persons who are intensely self-absorbed, he is something of a monologuist – a fact that he recognizes and for which he offers his own explanation.  “People around me never say anything,” he says.  “They just seem to want to hear what I have to say.  That’s why I do all the talking.”‘

I knew very little about Brando before reading The Duke in His Domain, and was looking forward to learning about him.  Capote is one of my absolute favourite authors, and his journalism is the only part of the work which I’ve not yet got to from his oeuvre.  As well as outlining his observance of Brando, and the in-depth conversations which they have, Capote has also included testimony from several of Brando’s friends here, which helps to build a full picture, and explores the effects which others have had on him.  The Duke in His Domain is a great piece of extended journalism, and one which I would highly recommend.

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‘Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital’ by Franz Hessel ****

I adore books about flaneurs; I find them absolutely fascinating.  Thus, I was thrilled to come across Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital whilst browsing in a bookshop, and purchased a copy immediately.  First published in Germany in 1929, it was not until 2016 that Walking in Berlin was translated into English by Amanda DeMarco.  Hessel grew up in Berlin, and DeMarco is currently based there, which I feel is a nice and considered touch.

The book promises ‘a walk around 1920s Berlin with one of its greatest luminaries’.  Since its original publication, Hessel’s ‘timeless guide’ has been highly praised.  In her introduction, DeMarco notes that the book was ‘a critical success upon its publication… [but was] largely forgotten after the Second World War.’  Walter Benjamin, a great friend of Hessel’s, declares it ‘an absolutely epic book, a walking remembrance’.  The Independent writes that it ‘captures a portrait of a city on the brink of irrevocable change’.  The Observer calls it a ‘love letter to the city’, and the Times Literary Supplement states that it is ‘not only an important record of old Berlin; it is a testimony to its enduring spirit.’ 9781925228359

Hessel takes his readers on a walk around much of Weimar-era Berlin, splitting his observations into essays relating to particular districts.  He takes in ‘some of the most fascinating sights the city has to offer, many of which still exist in some form today’.  Many of these sights are seen on foot, as Hessel wove through one street after another, but the odd one was conducted whilst in a car, or on a day-long tour with a lot of Americans.  DeMarco writes that ‘Hessel’s knowledge of city history was extensive, gleaned from an art-history education and an avid personal interest in the cultural sediment that had accumulated around him.  It is evident in these pages that history was alive and present for him, visible in the architecture.  All it took was a glimpse of a statue or bridge or gate to send Hessel conjuring up the figures and era that produced it.’  Despite his knowledge of the city, Hessel wished to present his findings here as though he was coming to Berlin for the first time.

Of course, Berlin, like many other cities, was going through a period of rapid modernisation during the 1920s.  Thus, the city which he describes notes the changes which are occurring, as well as the way things used to be when Hessel was a child.  Of this, DeMarco writes: ‘… the breathless pace of his descriptions reveals the new heartbeat of a populace that was cathartically shaking off the trauma of the First World War, while frantically grasping for economic stability.’  Of his city, Hessel tells us of Berlin’s ongoing metamorphosis: ‘I’ll have to educate myself in local history, take an interest in both the past and future of this city, a city that’s always on the go, always in the middle of becoming something else.’

The first essay, ‘The Suspect’, begins with Hussel observing people at work, and young girls at play.  From his position as a flaneur, he writes of the suspicion which the observed sometimes felt toward him: ‘I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.’  Throughout, Hessel’s voice is chatty, and almost playful.  As he continues his journey, he comes across many different people – stocking menders, architects, factory workers, shopkeepers, the rich and the poor, upperclass partygoers, and tour guides, to name but a few.  As Hessel makes his way around, he discusses art, literature, culture, and fashion, as well as streets already lost to the annals of time in the 1920s.

Throughout, Hessel’s writing is layered and sumptuous.  In the extended essay entitled ‘A Tour’, he joins a sightseeing buggy, intending to try and see Berlin through the eyes of a traveller.  During his experience, he weaves his own childhood memories of the city in with what he observes: ‘Now we’re gliding past the long facade of the library, its sunny side.  Silks, leathers and metals entice from the marquees of elegant shops.  The lace curtains at Restaurant Hiller awaken distant memories of happy hours, the nearly forgotten fragrance of lobster and Chablis, the old porter who led you so discreetly to the cabinets particuliers.  I tear myself away – I’m a foreigner here, after all – only to be caught up again.  Travel agencies, mesmerising displays of world maps and globes, the magic of the little green books with red notes, seductive names of distant cities.  Ah, these blessed departures from Berlin!  How callously one leaves our beloved city.’

I love Berlin; when I visited some years ago, I found it a vibrant and hip city, filled with so much history.  Hessel’s book has made me want to book plane tickets to explore the city once more, with his notes in hand this time around.  Pick up Walking in Berlin, and expect that it will inspire a great wanderlust in you.  Hessel describes it, quite rightly, as a city filled with treasures.  It was a sheer pleasure to be transported to a Berlin which I half-recognised, and seeing it through the eyes of another brought a delightful freshness.

Walking in Berlin is a lovely and often quite touching rumination on the many things which are needed to make a city, and has wonderful asides which discuss the experience of being a flaneur: ‘The flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces… [and they] become letters that yield the words, sentences and pages of a book that is always new.’  It seems fitting to end this review with something which Hessel writes in his afterword.  ‘Now, dear fellow citizens,’ he says, ‘please don’t reproach me for all of the important and noteworthy things that I’ve overlooked; rather, go out yourselves, aimlessly, just as I have done, on hazard’s little voyages of discovery.  You don’t have time?  That’s false ambition speaking.’

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‘The Red Tenda of Bologna’ by John Berger *****

I had not read anything of John Berger’s before reaching the thirtieth book in the Penguin Moderns series.  The Red Tenda of Bologna, which was first published in 2007, is a ‘dream-like meditation on memory, food, paintings, a fond uncle and the improbable beauty of Bologna, from the visionary thinker and art critic.’

9780241339015The Red Tenda of Bologna opens in an intriguing, even a spellbinding, way, when Berger depicts the relationship which he had with his uncle Edgar: ‘I should begin with how I loved him, in what manner, to what degree, with what kind of incomprehension.’  The way in which he describes his uncle is quite lovely: ‘When he first came to live with us, I was about ten years old and he was in his mid-fifties.  Yet I thought of him as ageless.  Not unchanging, certainly not immortal, but ageless because unanchored in any period, past or future.  And so, as a kid, I could love him as an equal.  Which I did.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is comprised of a series of untitled vignettes, some of which are only one sentence long, and which together form a wonderful fragmented memoir.  These vignettes follow one another in their content; a rumination in one about Berger and Uncle Edgar sharing affection for one another by giving small gifts leads to a list of some of the things which they exchanged, ranging from ‘a map of Iceland’ and ‘a pair of motorbike goggles’, to ‘a biography of Dickens’ and ‘one and a half dozen Whistable oysters.’

Berger fittingly brings his memories of his uncle to life on the page.  It soon becomes quite possible to see Edgar sitting astride his upright bicycle, with its pile of books strapped to the luggage rack, ready to be exchanged at Croydon’s public library.  Edgar was clearly a huge influence upon, and comfort within, Berger’s life.  He writes: ‘Whenever I stood beside him – in the figurative or literal sense – I felt reassured.  Time will tell, he used to say, and he said this in such a way that I assumed time would tell what we’d both be finally glad to hear.’

Indeed, Berger decides to travel to Bologna quite some time after his uncle’s death, as it was a place which Edgar held dear.  The scenes which unfold on the page are both sumptuous and observant; for instance, Berger writes: ‘I notice that some people crossing the square, when they are more or less at its centre, pause and lean their backs against an invisible wall of an invisible tower of air, which reaches towards the sky, and there they glance upwards to check the clouds or the sky’s emptiness.’  Thus, the history of his uncle, and the history of Bologna, begin to converge.  Berger writes about a singular relationship, as well as the relationship which he has with Bologna.

The ‘tenda’ of the book’s title is the name of the red cloth used to make window awnings in Bologna, all of which are in varying shades of red according to their age.  Berger wishes to buy a length of it, as a souvenir of his trip.  He writes: ‘I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.  Maybe I only need it to make this portrait.  Anyway I’ll be able to feel it, scrumble it up, smooth it out, hold it against the sunlight, hang it, fold it, dream of what’s on the other side.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is a tender, thoughtful rumination on life and love.  It is a small but perfectly formed book, artful and intelligent.  The prose is best savoured, written as it is with the all-seeing artist’s eye.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ by Susan Sontag **

Penguin Modern number 29 is Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, which is comprised of the title essay alongside ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’.  These two essays, both of which can be found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), are heralded in the book’s blurb as ‘the first works of criticism to break down the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, and made Susan Sontag a literary sensation.’

9780241339701To date, I have only read two of Sontag’s other essays, collected together in Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors, and read for an Illness Narratives class during my Master’s degree.  The essays were interesting enough, but I did feel as though they were rather too brief in places.

In ‘Notes on Camp’, Sontag essentially talks about our concept of what is ‘camp’.  She believes ‘Camp’ to be a demonstration of artifice, something ‘silly’ and ‘extravagant’.  Near to the beginning of the essay, she writes: ‘One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly.  It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas’.  Of course – and this is something which Sontag strangely does not consider at all in her essay – taste is entirely subjective.  This put me off on the wrong footing with Sontag’s work.  Throughout, I must admit that I found her brand of essayism a touch pretentious.

‘Notes on Camp’ feels quite fragmented to read.  It is as though Sontag randomly jotted down a lot of quotes and thoughts, and did not bother to sort them into any order, or even to categorise them coherently.  It very much feels like a series of notes which could perhaps have done with a little revising.  Oscar Wilde quotes are shoved in at random, and not commented upon for the most part.  I found it quite bizarre in places.  Sontag believes, for instance, that ‘many of the works of Jean Cocteau are Camp, but not those of Andre Gide; the operas of Richard Strauss, but not those of Wagner; concoctions of Tin Pan Alley and Liverpool, but not jazz’.  Never does she explain how or why she has come to these strange conclusions.  When she does occasionally give reasoning for a point which she makes, I found it quite odd, and did not appreciate the occasional prejudices which come to light in her writing.

In the second essay, Sontag proposes that there exist “two cultures”: the literary-artistic and the scientific.  She goes on to write: ‘According to this diagnosis, any intelligent and articulate modern person is likely to inhabit one culture to the exclusion of the other.  He will be concerned with different documents, different techniques, different problems; he will speak a different language.  Most important, the type of effort required for the mastery of these two cultures will differ vastly.  For the literary-artistic culture is understood as a general culture.  It is addressed to man insofar as he is man…  The scientific culture, in contrast, is a culture for specialists; it is founded on remembering and is set down in ways that require complete dedication of the effort to comprehend.’  In this essay, which is slightly more coherent than the first, and more traditional in its structure, Sontag also talks about the progression of art.

I always feel as though I should enjoy Sontag’s work more than I do.  However, Notes on “Camp” has cemented that I am not a great fan of her essayism.  The collection shows its age rather; perhaps it is just a product of its time, but it is not one which I particularly enjoyed, or took much from.  Sontag writes with a sort of knowing superiority, and I did not find her arguments here to be particularly measured, or compelling.  Her tone feels final and definite, as though her answers are the only correct ones.  I prefer the essayists I read to be more open in their conclusions, allowing inclusion, something which Sontag does not seem to concern herself with.

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